For most of the past 18 years, life-long basketball enthusiast Tony Propst felt he was talented enough to play at a level higher than high school.
A couple of missed opportunities in college and an unfortunate string of circumstances in his early 20s prevented Propst from pursuing that goal in the prime of his life.
Now 36 years old, the Concord resident finally has the opportunity to prove himself right.
Local teams include The Elite, which plays its home games at Cox Mill High School, and Huntersville HoopForLyfe, which calls Lake Norman Charter School home.
TRBL teams are mostly comprised of former college players who still have a competitive drive and passion for the game. Some of them aspire to play at higher levels themselves, such as in professional leagues overseas.
The Charlotte Elite has several players with ties to Charlotte high schools and colleges, including Curtis Withers, formerly of the Charlotte 49ers and West Charlotte High, and Jerry Hollis, who played at Garinger, Victory Christian and Johnson C. Smith.
Withers and Hollis are taking a break from the TRBL and playing professionally in Iraq and Iceland, respectively. Both are expected to be back with the Elite once the league playoffs start in May.
Charlotte is leading the West Division with an 8-1 record.
Propst, a family man with a wife and three children, says he doesn’t have an interest in playing overseas. But he adds that he would never limit his options if more opportunities at a more advanced level arose stateside.
“I would love to play (for the Elite) again next year,” said Propst. “I’ll play as long as my body allows. … Or until my wife says ‘no.’”
Propst is a China Grove native and a 1997 graduate of South Rowan where he was the star quarterback for the football team and an all-county shooting guard for the Raiders. He was scheduled to redshirt his freshman season at UNC Pembroke but transferred after one semester.
He landed at Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith and was invited to play basketball as a walk-on. But that’s when bad things started to happen to Propst. Over the course of a few years, Propst suffered a gunshot wound in both lower legs (he says it was the result of mistaken identity), a blood clot in his lung, and injuries sustained by being hit by a car while jogging on a road near his parents’ house.
Propst never played a game for Johnson C. Smith, but he did graduate in 2005.
About six years ago, Propst set out to pursue his semipro dreams. Over an 18-month period, he attended three tryouts for teams in Atlanta and Chicago. Each time he was cut.
Propst, an inventory manager for a Concord printing company, married his wife, Nakia, in 2009 and since then he has settled for playing in recreational leagues in Concord. Nakia recognized her husband’s passion for the game and encouraged him to pursue semipro opportunities again.
Last summer, Propst traveled to Orlando, Fla., for a semipro tryout. Once again, Propst got cut.
Although the TRBL had been operating for three years, Propst had never heard of it. The pastor at his Matthews church helped him get in touch with S. Jamal Slayton, a University City resident and coach of the first-year Charlotte Elite squad, who gave Propst a tryout in October.
“I could see he could shoot,” said Slayton. “I like the vets, they are much more stable. He could think, which is important. I saw that he could be an asset.”
Finally, Propst made the team. He likened his journey to Job, the biblical figure who endures great perils before being rewarded.
“I feel you can do all things through Christ,” said Propst. “I think about Job going through so many things. That’s how I felt.”
Propst is a 5-foot 11-inch role player for the Elite, coming off the bench as a shooting or defensive specialist. He continues to play in a Concord recreational league, recently organizing a team named the Golden Bulls, just like Johnson C. Smith’s mascot.
Joe Habina is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Joe? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.